Checking Out Church-State Separation

South Carolina University Library Honors Activist Flynn Harrell, As Church-State Collection Opens

Fifty-one years ago, Flynn Harrell made his first donation to Americans United.

In 1959, soon after finishing college and service in the U.S. Army, Harrell attended a public meeting at the First Baptist Church of Spartanburg in South Carolina to hear a church-state separation speech by Glenn Archer, then Americans United executive director.

“As a Baptist growing up and as a young adult, I had exposure to the concept,” Harrell recalled. “Religious liberty and church-state separation constituted a major tenet in Baptist doctrine. But Dr. Archer’s address was my first exposure to hearing an in-depth presentation on church-state separation.

“I was very impressed,” said Harrell, “and I gave him a check that night.”

Since then, Harrell has been a dedicated member, reading Church & State magazinecover to cover, which he says has “added a lot to his enlightenment on the subject.”

But Harrell hasn’t just supported the cause from the sidelines. He has taken it upon himself to educate fellow Americans, especially those living in his home state of South Carolina, about why church-state separation is so important.

“My state is a little more conservative than most,” Harrell joked.

Through the years, Harrell has authored several church-state articles and delivered speeches on the subject on more than 100 occasions to churches, schools, civic clubs and classes at his alma mater, the University of South Carolina.

Now, due to Harrell’s advocacy, the University of South Carolina will make sure that future generations of students can be educated about church-state separation, too.

The Hollings Special Collections Library at the University of South Carolina opened The Flynn T. Harrell Collection on the Separation of Church and State on Nov. 10. The university held a dedication service for the collection, honoring Harrell for donating 45 years of documents on church-state separation.

“I thought that would be the best possible place for them to go,” said Harrell, who has spent years organizing the collection. He said he asks for duplicates from the publishers of the journals he subscribes to in order to keep one issue intact, and another for clippings to sort by subject matter.

“For as long as I live, each December, I will deliver to the university the things that I have collected that year,” Harrell said. “Eventually, I hope it will shift over, and the library will subscribe to some of the journals I am receiving.”

Harrell got the ball rolling on the special collection back in 2008 when he mentioned the idea to friends that were associated with the university’s library.

“That summer, I had lunch one day in downtown Columbia with the director of the library,” said Harrell, “and I casually mentioned it as a possibility. He told me, ‘I want it right now.’”

Soon after that meeting, Harrell started to sort through his collection, creating 72 different subject files and getting the clippings into “tip-top shape.” He donated these clippings, along with books, hundreds of journals, including Church & State, and personal correspondence on church-state separation.

The donation is just part of the many services Harrell has contributed in his hometown of Columbia.

For 11 years, he served as an executive assistant to South Carolina Attorney General Travis Medlock. Prior to that, he served for 21 years as the first business/financial officer of the South Carolina Baptist Convention and was elected president of the convention for 1987.

Harrell is a former member of the Board of Visitors of Wake Forest University Divinity School and the advisory council of the Center on Religion in the South at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. He has also served on Americans United’s National Advisory Council and its Board of Trustees. (He served as treasurer of AU’s Board of Trustees during part of that time.)

In 1981 and 1982, Harrell chaired Gov. Dick Riley’s Task Force on Critical Human Needs, assisting those who were struggling to make ends meet during the recession.

Though Harrell is now retired, he serves on the board of an insurance company and spends much of his time with his wife, Anne Turner Harrell, his two children and five grandchildren. He still remains active in community affairs – particularly in his church. 

In 1998, Harrell left the Southern Baptist denomination and joined the Shandon Presbyterian Church (USA) in Columbia, where he is an elder. He also serves as moderator of the Trinity Presbytery, presiding over three annual meetings and other sessions throughout the year.

“I’ve always been a very active person,” said Harrell, which is something that church-state activists are thankful for.

“Flynn is rendering an invaluable service for the cause of religious liberty,” said J. Brent Walker, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Walker has been a friend of Harrell’s for more than 20 years.

“He’s done a lot of writing and speaking about the separation of church and state,” said Walker. “He’s passionate about these issues and is willing to do it, not for pay or for a job, but just because he feels strongly about it.

“This collection will be a legacy to Flynn’s passion and his energy long after he’s gone and we’re gone,” Walker continued. “It’s entirely fitting that Flynn Harrell’s commitment to religious liberty and church-state separation will be preserved for future generations.”

Walker, along with AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, gave remarks at the dedication ceremony in Columbia.

“For over half a century, Flynn has been a faithful foot soldier in the battle for church-state separation,” said Lynn. “Thanks to grassroots activists like him, the American public is much better informed about the religious liberty provisions of our Constitution than they otherwise would have been. I wish we had a platoon of Flynns in every community in America.” 

Harrell is hopeful that this university collection will inspire other church-state separation activists to keep working in the communities where they live.

“I’ll be disappointed if this isn’t being done in other places in coming years,” Harrell said. “There is still a lot of ignorance about church-state separation. I hope it’s getting better, and I hope the collection at the university will bring awareness to the public and that people will go there and do research.

“What’s happened here in South Carolina,” he concluded, “can be a great example of what anyone can do at the grassroots level.”